Gentle music, wafting aromas and softly-padded walls. Carolyn O'Grady samples an Aladdin's cave of therapeutic space for children with special needs.
A surprising addition to the Ideal Home Exhibition this year was a Snoezelen room. A dark room with white, softly-padded walls and floor on which moving patterns of light were reflected and in which music softly played, it had two bubble tubes (thick, tall, transparent cylinders in which bubbles surge their way to the top, changing colour as they go) in the corner and an illuminated panel with a changing burst of coloured lights on the wall. Fibre-optic strands like luminous spaghetti which changes colour snaked their way over the floor.
The room was part of the NCH Action for Children exhibit and was there to attract attention to the charity's fund-raising, to provide somewhere for visitors to relax and to show what is fast becoming a standard feature in many schools and homes for children and adults with special needs.
Originally designed in Holland, where the concept was named Snoezelen (literally sniffing and dozing smell is an important ingredient and many sensory rooms use aroma diffusers to waft in different smells), they have become very popular in this country and are found in all sorts of situations including special schools for people with severe learning difficulties, a burns unit for children, a specialist centre for children with epilepsy and homes for the elderly. Recently they have begun to be used with people with Alzheimer's as they appear to help sufferers to control their memories.
They relieve stress and "provide an Aladdin's cave of sensory experience", says Joe Kewin, co-editor with Roger Hutchinson of a recent book on sensory environments. They also appear to have benefits in terms of relationships. In these rooms carers and children and adults with special needs appear to be able to relax and to enjoy each other's company.
Though these rooms have been around for some years now, their use continues to be the subject of intensive research and development. Relatively new is the use of equipment which is more interactive and perhaps has a more directly educational purpose.
Greenwich Toy Library recently took delivery of a sensory room which combines equipment which can be used both passively and interactively.
Housed in an imaginatively-refurbished church with other Greenwich groups working for and with the disabled, the toy library is part of an integrated support service for about 1,000 families, 820 of whom have children with special needs.
Among facilities are a mother and toddler group, toys for lending and recently the sensory room which is available to special schools, parents or minders with children with special needs and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. Apart from most of the basic equipment of a sensory room, items include a water bed which allows even the slightest movement to be felt, and encourages users to move.
Sound Light Floor is one activity which children control themselves with the aid of switches. Made up of 12 large pressure-sensitive panels which light up in different colours if pressure is applied, it will also play musically correct notes and can be programmed to play up to 100 instrument combinations.
By stepping or rolling on the squares children using the room gradually learn that this is not just a batch of lights, but something they can operate themselves, to create either sound or visual patterns. Pat Gardner, the coordinator and developer of the toy library, says "it encourages independence and helps them towards a greater awareness of their bodies and better coordination".
Not all children who use the room need or want to be so active, and so it is designed to allow them to be both. Designers often caution against getting carried away with switches, arguing that lots of switches can prevent users from immersing themselves in the room or the activity.
They also point out that, if control is to have any value, the user should be able to learn to make many interesting connections between their own actions and what happens. Sound and light combinations appear particularly effective, as exemplified by the Sound Light Screen which gives spectacular light patterns in response to noises, talking or music made with or without a microphone. Using it children and others can become more aware of the quality of sound.
At Greenwich, control of the room is not something which is only in the hands of the children. Teachers or other carers can also use a remote control to alter the mood and what is happening in the room.
"Teachers have to learn to be sensitive to the needs of different people, " says Pat Gardner. The right combinations of visual and sound stimuli can calm agitated children and stimulate those who are too passive. To help them work the room effectively, the library runs training days on using the sensory room with children and adults with different sorts of disability.
Greenwich Toy Library paid Pounds 28,000 for its sensory room, and Pat Gardner is pleased with a resource which is popular and which they hope soon to have in use all day and all evening. But does access to this sort of experience have to cost so much? Roger Hutchinson of Whittington Hall Hospital in North Derbyshire, one of the oldest disability hospitals, who has extensively researched the use of sensory rooms, thinks not.
"If you haven't got that sort of money, it doesn't matter, get a bubble tube only, or partially adapt a room so that it can have multiple functions; it could be a therapy and recreation room as well as a sensory room," he says. He points to the Sensokit, a sort of mini, portable sensory room for those with limited space and funds. Triangular in shape, it has interchangeable displays which include bubble-tubes, a fibre-optic "fountain" and fluorescent plastic filaments of different bright colours. It costs Pounds 1,895 and can be transported to any setting and then put away.
Roger Hutchinson also cautions schools not to see sensory rooms as a panacea. "They are one of many exciting resources we have access to. They complement other quality resources and activities." Soft play activity rooms and sensory gardens (which are designed particularly for children with special needs) are others. The chief purpose of sensory rooms, he says is "to enhance leisure to make it more therapeutic".
SUPPLIERS OF EQUIPMENT FOR SENSORY ROOMS: Rompa International, Goyt Side Road, Chesterfield, Derbyshire S40 2PH. Tel: 01246 211777
Mike Ayres Design, Unit 8, Shepherds Grove, Stanton, Suffolk IP31 2AR. Tel: 01359 251551
Kirton Litework, Unit 3, Woodgate Park, White Lund Industrial Estate, Morecambe LA3 3PS. Tel: 01524 844808
SpaceKraft Ltd (specialists in interactive equipment), Growgill House, Rosse Street, Shipley, West Yorkshire BD18 3SW. Tel: 01247 531966
Toys for the Handicapped, 76 Barracks Road, Sandy Lane Industrial Estate, Stourport-on-Severn, Worcestershire DY13 9QB. Tel: 01299 827820
Sensations and Disability: Sensory Environment for Leisure, Snoezelen, Education and Therapy. Edited by Joe Kewin and Roger Hutchinson. Pounds 9.45 0 9512 8211 5 Published by Rompa.